Nothing gives new life to an old horse like a $6-million deal coming together.
Joseph Simpson and his partners are witnessing the first turning of dirt at the 320 West Pearl Street home of the long-abandoned Iron Horse Grill, capping a lengthy effort to bring the fire-damaged structure back to life as a downtown destination for dining, musical entertainment and a museum for Mississippi’s acclaimed musical heritage.
The more than century-old structure of about 12,000 square feet sustained extensive damage in a pair of fires that forced its closing as a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in 1999. The restoration requires demolishing about 6,000 square feet and rebuilding a nearly equal amount of space that when completed will include a two-level dining room and live music area, a music museum and a welcome center-gift shop to acquaint visitors with destinations along the state‘s Blues and Country Music trails.
Simpson and partners Jesse Simpson, John Luckett, Johnny Johnson, David Waddell, Andrew Jenkins and Mark McCormack expect to reopen the downtown landmark by late fall.
A ceremonial groundbreaking is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday (Dec. 10).
Simpson has been eager to see contractor Johnson Construction of Jackson go to work on the site situated between downtown and Jackson State University. “Interest is ticking,“ Simpson said, referring to the extensive borrowing the $6-million restoration deal required.
Simpson, a financial advisor and president of the Simpson Group, estimates he and his partners are putting about $1.5 million into the project. Funding is also coming from $2.5 million in urban renewal bonds from the Jackson Redevelopment Authority and $4.5 million in New Market Tax credits allocated by state and federal sources.
The tax credits, which Jackson-based MuniStrategies administered for the Iron Horse deal, are designed to help with private-sector revitalization projects in low-income neighborhoods. Investors, in this instance Trustmark National Bank, buy the credits and use them to defray their taxes over a seven-year period. While the Iron Horse project has $4.5 million in New Market Tax Credits, not quite half that amount will actually go toward funding the project. The credit equals 39 percent of the investment paid out and is allocated at 5 percent in each of the first three years, then 6 percent in the final four years, to reach the 39 percent mark.
MuniStrategies received the job of administering the credits through its federal designation as a Community Development Entity.
The project also received a 10 percent federal historic tax credit that Simpson says would have been higher had the restoration salvaged more of the circa 1906 structure at the corner of Pearl and Gallatin streets that once housed the Armour Co. Smokehouse.
The Iron Horse Grill’s new incarnation will officially be as the Iron Horse Grill/MS Music Experience.
The music experience spotlights Mississippi’s premiere place in the histories of blues music, country music and rock ‘n roll. “We’ll be embracing them all,” Simpson said.
Live music will be a mainstay of the new Iron Horse, with performers on stage Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Simpson said. He said he expects a midnight closing most nights.
Simpson and his partners hope to make food a big draw, as well. Tex-Mex items will be on the menu as a nod to the Iron Horse Grill’s former life as a Tex-Mex destination. But the cuisine will be largely casual American cooked over open grills, Simpson said.
The renovation entails keeping the Iron Horse’s wood flooring and retaining the existing brick walls that now face Pearl Street as interior walls of the building’s addition, according to Simpson.
Meanwhile, downtown promoter Ben Allen is excited to see the Iron Horse get new life and has praised Simpson and his partners as well prepared to take on the project. “To have this come back to life is a major triumph,” said Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, a public-private partnership created to enhance and promote downtown Jackson.
“This is just another sign of the momentum in downtown and it really ties together the developments on the west end of our community.”
What distinguishes the Iron Horse from other high-profile downtown projects that have stalled is that “this one is going to happen,” Allen said.